He’d taken the call.
Normally he wouldn’t interrupt his work to take a personal phone call; people generally knew better than to interrupt him. They knew his dedication, his professionalism.
But Barry had come out to him on the floor and said “Pete, you gotta take this.”
When you hear a friend say that, it’s either very good or very bad news. The keyword is “extreme”.
“Mr Jefferies, this is Doctor Steinberg, at Parkfield West Hospital. I regret to inform you that your father has suffered a complete renal failure – he’ll need a kidney replacement to survive.”
He was hardly ready to swallow such a bitter pill – but some ingrained reflex allowed him to answer. “I’ll be right there, Doctor Steinberg.”
Barry was explaining to their supervisor; Peter was in too much of a rush to stop. He had to force himself to slow down driving to Parkfield West, even as his mind raced.
Peter had always been close to his father – it was a no-brainer decision to give the man his kidney. It was the least he could do for his father who had raised him alone after Peter’s mother had died giving birth to him. As an only child, Peter’s father wasn’t just a figure of authority and discipline, but a real friend. They both only had each other; always thought his bond with his father had been stronger than the other children.
Reception at the hospital was professional and efficient, he found Doctor Steinberg in record time. Peter didn’t know the exact repercussions of what had happened to his father, but thought that wasting any amount of time wasn’t good.
Thankfully, the rotund Doctor Steinberg put his anxious spirit somewhat at ease. “Relax, Mister Jefferies. He’s been stabilized – there’s no current danger to your father. It’s just policy to inform the next of kin of the situation as soon as possible.”
“Good policy. Now, how soon can I give my father my kidney?”
Doctor Steinberg smiled calmly at him. He probably thought it would relax Peter; instead it was just irritating. “I can understand your eagerness, Mister Jefferies, but there are a few things we have to do first. Such as your agreement to this release allowing us to access your medical records, and a blood test.”
The forms were standard; insert name here, date here, sign here. Whisked away to be processed by some nameless medical bureaucrat at some time in the future, while a nurse expertly took a sample of blood from his arm.
“Now, Mister Jefferies; I’m sure you want to see your father. Come this way.”
Seeing his father lying there, so weak and helpless, was shocking, to say the least. Peter remembered the man easily chopping firewood billets behind the hunting cabin they visited in the mountains years ago. In his memory Peter could still see the echoes of that strapping younger man within that motionless grey and wasted form. How the mighty had fallen. It killed him to see his father like this.
Softly, the doctor quickly addressed him. “It’s not conducive to his health to disturb him at this stage – hopefully everything will go as planned and we can perform the operation soon.”
Peter did want to talk to his father, but gazing forlornly at the thick translucent plastic tubing sprouting from the withered body, perhaps the doctor was right.
“Anyway, Mister Jefferies; let’s check on the analysis for your father’s transplant. Please remain here while I sort out the details; I’ll return when we are ready to continue to the next step.”
He was alone with his thoughts, with this monstrous image of his father so frail. His mind kept replaying over and over the slow passing of the years: he couldn’t reconcile his father with this man lying still within the hospital bed. Peter wanted to deny the truth of this perception – that what he saw was unbelievable, unreal, an illusion.
Doctor Steinberg coughed quietly; halting the merry-go-round of reflection Peter hung on to. He gestured Peter back into his office – the quicker this silly bureaucracy was dealt with, the quicker his father would be well again.
He wanted to treat the earlier vision of his father; hooked up to that demonic seeming technology, as just an evil dream, an ethereal bugbear of no substance, just a tortured memory.
If he could just erase this mistake of circumstance, they could both continue their lives as if it had never even happened.
Not truly soon enough, the same anonymous nurse came back with a sheaf of official looking papers. Doctor Steinberg read through the documents quickly and puttered upon his desktop computer, while Peter anxiously watched him for any sign of hope.
But Doctor Steinberg was unreadable – Peter was no slouch at understanding people’s reactions; even consumed by desperation he still couldn’t discern the change in the chubby man’s eyes.
“I am sorry … Mister Jefferies … there is a complication.”
While the doctor’s eyes may have revealed nothing, his voice was far more telling. A definite undercurrent of fear and awe within the professional tone; pitch heightened by hysteria.
But where was this fear coming from?
Irrationally his mind cantered back to the movie he’d seen last week with his girlfriend Mary. It was one of those psychological thrillers that she liked, where the main character killed people unaware when he was sleeping or something, the idea had been done to death lately. He hadn’t done anything wrong, had he? It was impossible that the doctor saw a report that labelled mild-mannered, hard-working Peter Jefferies as a crazed, axe-wielding mass murderer.
No, it was completely implausible. Things like that didn’t happen in real life, that sort of stuff remained in the realm of fantasy.
The doctor kept the situation under his control – asking Peter a question; perhaps this would lead to answers for both of them. “Mister Jefferies … do you remember the time ten years ago, you and your father submitted a DNA sample?”
“Yeah, for that murder case – the whole city did; you did too, I imagine."
Doctor Steinberg nodded methodically, woodenly, and began to speak once again, but Peter cut him off.
“Look, doc – they caught the guy, and it damn well wasn’t me. So whatever the hell you are reading, I’m not some wacko on the rampage.”
The adrenaline flooding through his system made him angry and ever more anxious. He wanted to punch something, rage against the situation, anything than to submit to the possibility of losing his father. The fire in his blood blasted away the numbing ice of slowly spreading dread.
Whatever was going on, it was putting quite a strain on the inoffensive round individual that was Doctor Steinberg. “That’s not the issue, Peter. I know that you are not a criminal. But we used that information to match donor compatibility.”
Okay. That seemed like some measure of good news. But it still worried Peter – surely if everything was going fine, they’d be taking out the kidney already.
“Let’s stop screwing around here, doc. If I’m not compatible, I’m not compatible – we just start looking for other candidates and STOP WASTING TIME while my father is lying in bed, half FREAKING DEAD!”
Trying to shout over him, the doctor attempted to explain “That’s not the problem, Peter. You are compatible, unbelievably compatible.”
“So …” each word spat out sharply “what the hell’s the PROBLEM? Just go and do the transplant.”
Doctor Steinberg wisely stopped escalating the noise and sat down with his hands folded on his desk, waiting quietly and patiently until Peter did the same. Without an obvious adversary Peter did so, simmering down to see what happened next.
In a much more normal tone, Peter apologized. “I’m sorry, Doctor Steinberg. It’s just this is hard for me to deal with, I feel helpless, trying to fight something I can’t get a grip on.” His big hands clenched and released in tandem, over and over, as if he could crush the problem within those fists.
“I love my father, and it just feels like you are stopping me from helping him.” Peter drew a deep, shuddering breath. “I know that’s silly – you’re a doctor, my father’s doctor, and you want to help him too.”
“Yes, I do, Peter.” Warm and understanding, showing none of the earlier fear. “And I really believe you love your father very much.” Again that incredulity, that hushed awe.
What the hell was that supposed to mean? Was it so unbelievable that a son could care so much for his only parent? Peter had just thought it was the done thing, that it was normal. Maybe the doctor hadn’t had such a relationship with his own father. He immediately felt sympathetic to the little fat man – he was just doing his job, he wasn’t responsible for the situation.
“Peter, this is going to be hard for you to accept. But I compared the results from the DNA scans. You and your father have exactly the same pattern. Right down to the last amino acid strain. You are genetically identical.”
He was confused. “But that’s good, right? I don’t remember too much of my high school biology, but wouldn’t that mean that my kidney would be accepted easily? Like, it would be as good as his own?”
“Dead right, Peter, dead right. You are a smart man. But you’re missing one detail. The chance of you having exactly the same DNA as your father is … impossible. The only people who share DNA are identical twins – complete copies of each other.”
“Well, I’m obviously not my father’s twin. He’s over thirty years older than me. There must be a clerical mistake; somehow one record was copied over the other.”
Doctor Steinberg’s response was just a slow, sad shake of his head.
“Peter, you’re not his son. He’s not your father. You’re his clone.”
No. No no no. “Damnit, there’s a mistake. I had a mother – she died giving birth to me. Check your records."
His mother loved him, sacrificed her own life so he could live. This doctor knew NOTHING. It was just some cruel hoax of Fate.
“That’s why I investigated you more carefully, Peter. The woman Helen Jefferies, nee Montford, never existed. The surface details check out, but while I found a death certificate, I didn’t find a birth certificate. No medical records, no dental records. No social security number, no school records – nothing.”
It was time for Doctor Steinberg to take a deep breath. “Peter, the process of human cloning is completely illegal; it’s an ethical nightmare that has been debated for decades. Naturally, having anyone aware, even you, of your true nature would have been very risky. It’s obvious they tried to cover their tracks, whoever wanted you to be created, but they were still limited.”
Peter’s voice was far too weak for the hale and hearty man he was. “Doc, this doesn’t happen in real life. There must be a mistake.”
Through his blustery denials, half-submerged memories broke the ice of yesteryear. Why, for all his professed love of Helen, had there been no photographs of her to show Peter her face? Why could they not visit her grave? His maternal relations? His father had slammed the coffin lid shut on her memory, and Peter had always ached to know more of her.
Which wasn’t possible – the mother he had always longed for had never existed.
Peter’s father had avoided his questions, saying how painful it was to answer them. Painful, or problematic? Providing proof of the unreal. Always discouraging his searches for his absent, loving mother.
And this man, pale and sickly abed in Parkfield West? His father? Not in the normal sense of the word, “sole genetic donor” would be closer to the mark. Lies, deception, cover-ups and half-truths had kept Peter in a nice, warm cocoon of illusions.
Mother, father? He had none, not a real person any more, just some bastard abomination of science turning the natural order on its head. An instant orphan, feeling only the chill, bitter truth of Life.
It was quite obvious to the good doctor what emotions warred across Peter’s broad open face. But he refused to break down in public and cry.
Real men don’t cry, his father always used to say.
But, damnit, he wasn’t a real man. And the man who’d said it wasn’t his father.
He had to focus on the here and now.
“Doc, you said that human cloning was illegal. That makes ME illegal. I am in complete violation of those laws, just by being here. Are you going to turn me in?” Peter didn’t know what he would do now – if the doctor reported him, half of him welcomed it, at least the problems he had would be erased by the blissful oblivion of termination.
In a small, quiet voice, the doctor seemed close to tears himself “Peter, I will be blunt – if I had my way, you would never have been born. The process that made you was a monstrous perversion of biology – it sickens me that any of my profession would warp our craft to do such a thing. For myself, I find it unnatural and unholy.”
Peter resigned himself to his fate – no fight left in him, preparing himself for dissolution.
The doctor noticed Peter’s face fall and his voice became stronger, more confrontational. “But Peter, as much as I did, and still do condemn the process that made you, I cannot condemn you. By whatever origin of your flesh, I have seen what is inside you, today. You have shown me that a clone can feel emotions and even love. Whether you want to believe it or not, inside you are human.”
Almost a whisper: “And that’s all that matters.”
Peter could barely contain his hope, the wash of relief that thundered through his soul. Did this mean …
“Yes, Peter. I can’t turn you in. What’s more, I have some ability to alter your files so that others can’t stumble onto … anything. You can return to your normal life without worrying about being caught.”
Peter could barely speak, but he had to. “Doctor, you had my life in your hands and you gave it back to me. You’re a good man, Doctor Steinberg. How can I ever make this up to you?”
The plump fellow almost blushed. “You are a good man too, Peter. Remember that. And just be human, be yourself, that’s all; be happy.”
But his brow furrowed. “We still have something to resolve, Peter. Knowing what you do now, I’ll leave it up to you what to do about the man in bed who needs a kidney.”
Doctor Steinberg turned to leave. “I’m going to check on him now, let me know what you decide.”
In the silent doctor’s office, Peter was alone with his thoughts.
The old man awakened with a stretch, renewed vitality pumping through his veins. Earlier period of agony and weakness blinked away like a bad nightmare. No insidious devices burrowed into his flesh, he felt strong again.
Upon his right side there was a low table, and upon this table lay an envelope, simply addressed: “Dad”
He started to read.